Doug Lamborn couldn’t have been happier.
Ramming around the county in his well-worn Saturn SUV, the seven-term Republican congressman was back on the road last week and pressing the flesh after three months in isolation.
“I couldn’t wait to get back out,” Lamborn said, while touring the Pikes Peak National Cemetery he helped create east of Colorado Springs.
“This puts me back in the real world,” he said.
Like Lamborn, politicians of all stripes are beginning to emerge like so many wildflowers as coronavirus restrictions ease after a long winter. And they are heading into what will be a compressed, wild election season with less than five months of politicking before voters head to the polls.
For Colorado Springs Democratic state Rep. Tony Exum, it will be a political season unlike any he’s seen since first winning his general Assembly seat in 2012. Exum’s southern Colorado Springs district is known for wild political swings, and through three winning and one losing campaign, he’s learned how to check the pulse of the place by knocking on doors.
“I think it is the most important part, connecting with voters face to face,” he said.
But in 2020, Exum is confronting a quarantine campaign, where pressing the flesh could be seen as uncouth, or worse, dangerous.
“We're not sure how its going to go because of the inability to connect at the doors,” he said. “We have to think outside the box.”
Lamborn and Exum are scrambling to adjust to the realities of a campaign amid quarantine.
Lamborn, a 66-year-old who has held elective office for the past 26 years, spent a long stretch at his house in northern Colorado Springs from March through June. The only interruptions were occasional trips to the House in Washington.
“I resisted it as much as I could,” he said. “I’m too active.”
Many Americans have felt marooned during the coronavirus pandemic. But politicians may feel the isolation most keenly, said Republican State Sen. Dennis Hisey of Fountain.
“We don’t do well when we are told we can’t do our thing,” he said.
Hisey, who will face re-election in 2022, planned to spend the spring and summer helping other office-seekers connect with voters. But that’s been upended by the pandemic.
“It has kind of thrown everything off,” Hisey said of the 2020 campaigns. “Nobody is saying ‘I need to put together a team’, about the best we're getting is ‘I need money’.”
Hisey’s stock and trade during 12 years as an El Paso County commissioner and two in the Senate has been what he calls “retail politics.”
“I am planning some virtual town hall kinds of things — a lot of digital, which people I think would use anyway,” he said. “What's frustrating is the opportunities for face-to-face retail politics are limited.”
The coronavirus isn’t the only factor pressing on politicians as the political season gets a belated start.
Republican state Sen. Bob Gardner, a 1976 Air Force Academy graduate, said the current political environment has him reminiscing about the turbulent days of his childhood in the summer of 1968.
“There are societal cultural changes occurring where we don't know what the end of that looks like,” Gardner said.
“There are two things going on simultaneously — coronavirus pandemic and this sea change coming out of the George Floyd murder.”
Gardner said the two factors have combined to make the jobs of politicians more important, even as they struggle to connect with the voters they represent.
As he readies to face re-election this fall, Gardner said he’s struggled to make his way in this new world full of facemasks and hand sanitizer during the closing days of the General Assembly this month
“I think what was so frustrating for me was dealing face-to-face with people with a mask on both of us,” he said. “Maybe I am not as good a reader of eyes and eyebrows, but something is lost in the human interaction from the person across from you.”
Lamborn, like some of his congressional colleagues, has resisted going out in public with his face hidden behind a mask.
At the veteran’s cemetery, he had a wide smile on full display as he toured newly-built facilities.
“It was a long time coming, but it was worth the wait,” said Lamborn, who took on the task of getting a cemetery for Pikes Peak region veterans as his first priority after winning his seat. “It’s so satisfying to see it come together.”
During his time in pandemic-driven isolation, Lamborn lit up phone lines and learned to use video meeting technology to keep in touch with voters. But, even with the dangers involved, Lamborn is by nature a hand-shaker, and the technological version of politics didn’t compare.
“It had its ups and downs,” he said of his attempts to stay isolated, yet connected.
But politicians are also wary of how they approach the public this year. A friendly handshake delivered to the wrong person could cost a vote.
“I think there are a lot of challenges for us,” Hisey said. “Some people are continuing to try to go door to door. Some people are not going to want to answer their door, more so than ever.”
Without his traditional door-to-door interactions, Exum said even getting a feel for how his campaign is being received is difficult.
“It's still an unknown,” he said.
Gardner said so much of the environment has changed in such a short period of time that learning the lessons of politics in 2020 could take longer than the election season.
“I imagine sociologists will be talking about this for years.”